1974: The Year of Fear
Dubbed “the year of fear”, '74 saw the birth of numerous serial killers, but why did this happen, and why this specific year?
John Wayne Gacy (Killer Clown) was already two deep, and Ted Bundy, Dennis Rader (BTK), Coral Watts (The Sunday Morning Slasher), and Paul Knowles (The Casanova Killer) had all started their new vocations this year. As a decade, there were over 450 active serial killers in the US alone and compared to the 67 active serial killers in the last decade, are we more titillated than scared these days?
The FBI’s definition of a serial killer states, “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.”
What went wrong?
Looking back, it makes perfect sense that this era birthed a swarm of offenders. While the nation’s attention was on the Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, and the Watergate Scandal, no one noticed that crime was rising. Instead, killers were running riot, notably with three separate 'Freeway Killers' in California, all operating around the same time from 1972 to 1983.
Communication was also far more localised, so the news of the missing turning up dead wasn’t national, and even the police weren’t sharing their investigations yet. Furthermore, there was no national database where law enforcement could compare their cases and work together. There was a stigma about asking for help, and information was kept under wraps.
The story of survivor Mary Vincent and her horrifying ordeal was one of the most widely-publicised cases due to no county wanting her paroled attacker as a resident. Mary was trying to hitchhike from Las Vegas to California in the late ’70s.
Picked up by Lawrence Singleton in Berkeley, he proceeded to assault her, cut off her arms and throw her over a cliff, left for dead. But, despite her story, people were still thumbing rides from strangers.
By 1974, FBI Special Agent Howard Teten had already established the Behaviour Science Unit (BSU) at Quantico. Originating as a teaching course, Teten and his colleagues found that their fieldwork produced some exciting discoveries. Teaching all over the country, they found that police officers attending their classes were encountering the same crimes.
“…a police officer from Washington would raise his hand and say, ‘You know what, we are having a problem with prostitutes being killed and the weird thing is, they all have dark hair and green eyes.’ Then someone from the middle of the country, from Kansas, would say, ‘You know, we are experiencing the same thing.’” Former Chief of the Behavioral Science Unit, Dr Gregory Vecchi, explained in an interview on the FBI’s website.
The BSU started asking two crucial questions; why do they do these things, and how do they do these things? From this, they were able to understand motivation and behaviour to start building their database.
Hit Netflix show Mindhunter is based on the teachings and discoveries of the BSU, and surprisingly a lot of the story in the show is true. They did get a confession from Darrell Devier by making him believe he was brought in to have a chat with the police. The cleverly placed murder weapon in the interview room made him so uncomfortable that he confessed to not only Mary Stoner’s murder but an additional assault the year before.
There are recordings of Kemper’s interviews, which mirror the actual dialogue from the show, from how he killed his Grandmother to his verbal punctuation. There are even snippets of Kemper reciting Flowers in the Attic, one of his hundreds of audio recordings, subtly shown in Season 2 of Mindhunter.
Why were so many serial killers in circulation?
Bedwetting, animal abuse, arson, and head injuries are the four factors most commonly associated with the beginnings of serial killers, and the latter makes for interesting research;
Fred West was 17 when he was in a motorcycle accident and obtained a skull fracture.
Richard Ramirez was two when a dresser fell on him, requiring 30 stitches. He was five when he was knocked out by a park swing.
John Wayne Gacy was six when his father starting beating him to unconscious. He was 11 when he was knocked out by a park swing.
David Berkowitz was six when he was hit by a car. Later that year, he ran head-first into a wall, and aged eight, he was hit on the head by a pipe.
Albert Fish was seven when he fell head-first from a tree.
Ed Gein was beaten so hard by his father that his ears would ring.
Are these cases of problematic nurturing, or lack thereof? Unfortunately, it can’t be that simple, and this is where the BSU became the department the public didn’t know they needed.
Did we just get better at catching them, or have we evolved?
Since its peak in 1989, the number of serial killers in the US has dwindled significantly in recent years. However, according to psychology professor Mike Aamodt from Radford University, there were around 30 active serial killers in 2015.
The Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, was arrested after a Contra Costa County investigator used a free genealogy website to aid in the case and found a match. DeAngelo went undiscovered for 40 years whilst technology caught up, and with this breakthrough in DNA analysis, other cold cases are expected to be solved soon.
We’re not hitchhiking anymore, the summer of love is over, we’re always on our phones with the police just a few taps away, we carry keys to use as weapons, and we have better-lit streets. With the amount of CCTV and DNA advances, it’s much harder to get away with murder these days.
So are we now at the point where we can see murder as entertainment? The media seems to think so, with networks dumping crime shows into our laps faster than we can keep up.
We now have series like Mindhunter, Big Little Lies, and Sharp Objects, taking us through dramatisations of ‘who done it’. In addition, there are countless podcasts like My Favorite Murder, Crime Junkie and Casefile, which delve into the graphic details of murder cases with a theatrical flair.
Crime as entertainment is now worth billions, and we’re buying into it as we have done since public hangings.
Crime shows have been around for decades. Dragnet premiered on TV in 1951, after moving from radio to the small screen.
From there, we’ve seen these shows take shape in many formats, including the dramatic talking head accounts of the actual people to lived these crimes. I Survived… is the ultimate true crime show, with the survivors telling their first-hand stories of what happened to them.
We’ve seen documentaries about the West Memphis Three, Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, Sister Cathy Cesnik in The Keepers, The Jinx with Robert Durst, Michael Peterson and The Staircase, and many, many more. Yet, surprisingly some of these cases are still ongoing.
The media’s strategy to get cases more media attention is working, and in the case of Steven Avery, the public are waiting for season 3 of Making a Murderer like it’s a soap opera.
Should we feel grateful that we’re now at the point where we can see murder as entertainment again, rather than being surrounded by it in real life? Perhaps it’s our way of coping with the loss. Like Japan paying homage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the creation of Godzilla, we’re immortalising these cases as part of our history.
Whatever the reason, we should be quietly grateful that technology has improved to the point that police can identify murderers from free websites, and we are far away from the year of fear. Let’s just hope those active serial killer numbers stay down.